First Time Author Spotlight: Austin Carson’s Secret Wars

Secret Wars is the first book to systematically analyze the ways powerful states covertly participate in foreign wars, showing a recurring pattern of such behavior stretching from World War I to U.S.-occupied Iraq. Investigating what governments keep secret during wars and why, Austin Carson argues that leaders maintain the secrecy of state involvement as a response to the persistent concern of limiting war. Keeping interventions “backstage” helps control escalation dynamics, insulating leaders from domestic pressures while communicating their interest in keeping a war contained.

The subtitle of the book refers to “covert conflict.” What is it?

Covert conflict refers to parts of war that are fought outside public view. Secrecy is the critical ingredient. The book focuses on military involvement by outside powers that is concealed and officially unacknowledged. An example is Soviet participation in the Vietnam War. Soviet leaders sent technicians to operate advanced missile systems on behalf of their North Vietnamese counterparts, and train them in the process. This led to hostile fire and even casualties among Soviet anti-aircraft crews and American pilots. Because neither side publicly acknowledged these incidents, they were a more-or-less hidden feature of the Vietnam War. The book’s chapter on Vietnam actually covers three examples of covert conflict: Soviet and Chinese anti-aircraft operations plus American covert bombing missions in Laos. The book describes the covert aspects of five major wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the American occupation of Iraq.

What is necessary for covert conflict and why does it emerge?

One theme of the book is that covert conflict tends to arise when opposing sides share an interest in keeping some aspect of a war on the “backstage.” In an important sense, it is not enough to know why one country or leader finds secrecy attractive. The real puzzle is mutual interests: why would opposing sides share an interest in secrecy? In the book I refer to this as collusive secrecy. Examples of it, such as mutual American and Soviet silence about their aerial combat during the Korean War, sparked my idea for book.  

My theory therefore answers a basic question: What is something both adversaries care enough about to tacitly cooperate in secrecy, despite bitter differences over the war more broadly?  Unwanted conflict escalation is my answer. I argue that limited war is hard to pull off. It requires clear geographic and other thresholds. Such limits are regularly endangered by accident (e.g. mistaken bombing over a border) or intentional abrogation (e.g. covert intervention into neutral territory). Secrecy about these inevitable extensions of war preserves flexibility and political maneuverability for the leaders trying to keep the war limited. Moreover, leaders watching one another conceal potentially explosive episodes provides tangible evidence of their interest in keeping a lid on the conflict. I trace the historical origins of this collusion to World War I. Leaders saw how easily a regional war could escalate, and the role of miscalculation and domestic hawkish pressure in facilitating that escalation. Covert intervention and collusion about it emerged as a solution to escalation in the modern age.

How does one research the secret side of war?  What are the practical challenges and how can researchers overcome them?

A central goal in writing Secret Wars was to show scholars of International Relations the viability of theorizing and empirically assessing secret state behavior. With a few important exceptions, the field has rarely addressed secrecy head-on. Historians have long taken the lead, but done so with a focus on a single country or conflict. Scholars of international politics need to build on these efforts to create comparative studies that allows for empirical and theoretical generalizations.

On the practical side, the book exclusively relies on declassified or leaked records that address covert military activity or the intelligence of a government monitoring such activity. I have never had a security clearance or other method of privileged access. Often the research felt like investigative journalism: I would chase citations from historians; I would accumulate “leads” for new batches of records from collections I could easily access; I would read oral histories or interviews for clues; and so on.

One also has to be opportunistic and the opportunities can come in many different forms. A key collection of records I used for the Korean War chapter were only declassified in 2010 on the war’s sixtieth anniversary. German records seized during World War II by the British and compiled into thematic volumes were essential for a chapter on the Spanish Civil War. The complete, declassified Pentagon Papers – originally leaked by Daniel Ellsberg – was an important source for the Vietnam War. My favorite example, though, is the material on U.S. covert operations in Laos. Because Laos was technically neutral, the American government had no overt military presence in-country. This forced covert military operations to be managed by the American ambassador and the State Department. Decades later, those records were declassified under more lenient State Department guidelines, rather than the Department of Defense or Central Intelligence Agency. The result is a much more robust record which I use to shed light on how the U.S. managed a covert program that was leaking to the media regularly by 1966.

How have covert conflict and the escalation issues you identify in Secret Wars changed over time?  Where do you start the story?  Is the book relevant to new developments like cyberwar?

The book traces the historical origins of this form of covert warfare to World War I. I argue that the Great War taught later leaders some important lessons, and those lessons prompted innovation in how war was fought.  Leaders saw how seemingly easy it was for a regional war in the Balkans to escalate to a global war. They saw the utter devastation industrialized conventional warfare could unleash. Lastly, they saw how escalation took place: the role of miscalculation among adversaries and hawkish domestic calls for entering and widening war.

I then trace how covert forms of military intervention evolved in the years after 1918. I describe some early examples of concealed, unacknowledged military activity and collusive efforts to ignore it. In a chapter on Spain, I go into quite a bit of detail about how a shared fear of pan-European war led even Nazi Germany to embrace covert conflict. In short, our modern methods of limiting war – including through secrecy – are a response to modern features like nationalism, democracy, and military technology.

Fast forward to today. In the final chapter of the book, I review how escalation-control effects of secrecy and deniability likely constitute an important part of the appeal of cyber operations. In the language of my theory, internet-based attacks take place on a kind of cyber-“backstage,” or a segregated space with limited visibility where governments can disavow responsibility. Such features can allow cyber operations to express a value for keeping a confrontation contained as well as reducing the impact of hawkish domestic pressure on future decisions. My guess is that there is considerable collusion taking place regarding cyber-attacks, especially those that take place during war. Moreover, this cyber-escalation nexus also helps make sense of why leaders end collusion and publicize on another. Doing so can usefully escalate tensions and act as a kind of coercive tool. All of this has clear parallels in the secrecy dynamics I describe in non-cyber contexts in Secret Wars.

You refer to war as a kind of “performance” and covert conflict as taking place on the “backstage.” Can you say more about how the metaphor of a theater helps drive the narrative of the book?

The theater metaphor is a recurring feature of the theoretical and historical analysis in Secret Wars. The front stage corresponds to activity by governments, in particular external intervening powers, which is visible to one another and to outside audiences. It is public. In my theory, the most important “audience” that watches the front stage is hawkish domestic constituents that can be a force for escalation. The backstage, however, corresponds to the concealed, unacknowledged parts of war. The audience may occasionally get a peak behind the curtain but, by and large, the backstage is only open and visible to the performers. The backstage enables a good performance on the front stage. Here I draw on Erving Goffman’s insight that how we present ourselves to one another (on the “front stage”) is dependent on our access to back regions (the “backstage”) where we can compose ourselves and hide inconsistent behavior.

I conceptualize limited war as a kind of performance by states. Rival intervening powers are the co-stars in this performance and they seek to create a narrative that a given war remains neatly confined to geographic and other boundaries. Like actors, rivals share access to the backstage and see one another there. This means covert activity is visible to rivals but often not to outsiders. This partial observability is what allows covert activity to control escalation dynamics through the two mechanisms I describe. Adversaries can see one another using the backstage, which reassures them that they are both dedicated to protecting the performance of limited war. Outside audiences, however, are unaware of or uncertain about activity on the backstage. This helps keep their reactions and pressure from affecting future decisions.

Lastly, what effect might a leader like Donald Trump have on covert conflict?

This is a question all of us who study war and international politics are asking ourselves. For my book, I think a leader like Trump reduces the value of accumulated experience and makes secrecy as a limited war tactic less likely to succeed. Leaders learning across conflicts is a recurring theme in Secret Wars. I review documentary evidence in which leaders making sense of Korea reference Spain, in Vietnam reference Korea, and so on. Because open discussion of it is rare, leaders tend to resort to comparisons to make sense of covert conflict. Past experience helps you interpret covert interventions by others and helps with predicting how others will react to your covert intervention.

A lot of this is simply not applicable right now. A singular, unique leader like Trump disrupts this learning process. With good reason, his foreign counterparts are likely ditching the old playbook and developing expectations specific to Trump and his advisors. This makes misunderstandings about covert conflict far more likely. Other leaders will be more uncertain about the motives – escalation-related or not – when they observe covert American programs in a place like Yemen or Syria. Moreover, Trump and his advisors are less likely to rely on advice that is informed by the accumulated lessons of the past. Perhaps a silver lining is that everyone might react with more caution given pervasive uncertainty. A more likely outcome is that the same political and practical appeals of covert action will remain; the chances for mistakes will therefore grow.

Austin Carson is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.